How India's silent majority got left behind: migrant workers and Covid-19
Illustration: Pavethra Jegatheesan

On the 24th of March, Narendra Modi took the most severe action so far to stop the spread of the coronavirus. On a television broadcast, Modi said ‘There will be a total ban on coming out of your home … every state, every district, every lane, every village will be under lockdown.’ 

With less than four hours notice and no specific guidance outlined, Modi simply claimed ‘all the steps to ensure essential commodities will be maintained.’ Questions of how people will get food, water and other necessities and how will they maintain distance from each other were not addressed. 

Ultimately, this resulted in local governments providing for their citizens and leaving migrant workers to fend for themselves. 

There are an estimated 139 million internal migrants working for daily wages in Indian cities. They are likely to work in the informal economy, unprotected by unions and politicians, their wages left to their employers’ discretion. The sudden announcement of lockdown left them stranded and without jobs, unable to provide for their family; many were forced to make the long journey back home and, with the halting of public transport, they had to make the trip on foot. For a number of these workers, this distance could be over 1,000 kilometres. 

With no help from local governments, citizens had to step in to provide necessary assistance to these people.

Talking to volunteers from ‘Migrant Support’ in Goa, many argue that these circumstances have constituted a humanitarian crisis. 

With no help from the local government, they supplied rations and vegetables for over 6000 people across Goa state for about a month, relying on donations and volunteers. However, when they tried to hand over the supply of food to localities at the end of the month, they were only partially successful. It was quite clear that they did not have the resources or manpower to systematically address the scale of the problem. 

However, migrant workers returning home is only the beginning of the problem. Many have predicted that this crisis will lead to fatal consequences for the Indian economy. 

With 70 to 80 million people estimated to have moved cross country, the unemployment rate has shot up from an already decades-high 7.8% in February to 21.7% on June 6, as reported by the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy. The International Labour Organization says the pandemic could push 400 million informal workers in India into deeper poverty. 

India’s central government has recently announced a relief package, totalling nearly $23 billion for migrant workers and the urban and rural poor. These measures include doubled food rations, free cooking gas for the next three months and a rural employment scheme. However, many say this doesn’t go far enough as numerous workers do not have access to social security in the first place. 

A government labour force survey released last year estimated that nearly half of those with a regular salary working in non-agricultural industries were not eligible for social security benefits meaning they would have difficulty in accessing these coronavirus relief packages. 

S. Irudaya Rajan, professor at the Centre for Development Studies, has said this crisis ‘should teach us to rethink how we treat our workers… we know they exist, but we refuse to recognise them’. Better planning and ample warning could have prevented the mass exodus that was seen in late March. 

Migration experts said, going forward, the central and state governments must ensure all workers across the country have access to social welfare programmes. Through registering and creating a database of workers, they could extend social safety net to migrants largely alienated from urban areas.

In the longer term, India must make changes to correct their unequal status-quo. Figures published by Credit Suisse in 2018 states that the richest 10% of Indians own around 80% of the country’s wealth; on the other hand, the less-privileged 60% own less than 5%. A significant reason for this is the 81% of the labour force that operates in the informal sector. The expendable nature of the labour force causes wages to remain low. This exacerbates the drastic inequality in standards of living in the country. 

With India reporting it’s highest daily rise in new COVID-19 infections on Wednesday, the country is definitely not past its peak. However, fears of economic fallout has led to the government relaxing lockdown restrictions whilst facing a spike in coronavirus cases. As with the rest of the world, it is yet to be seen what the globe  will look like after this.